It is probably safe to say that the critics and art historians who developed the legend of Leonardo’s unsurpassed greatness as a painter have had the color rise to their cheeks on rereading some of their own straining superlatives. No painter has suffered so severely at the hands of loving critics. The infallibility of his greatness has so deeply permeated our thinking and our judgment that an occasional call for revaluation is regarded either as treason or as part of the stock-in-trade of an habitual iconoclast.
It is true that Leonardo’s life was a really great life; that the facets of his genius were innumerable; that his mind was fantastically universal; that he anticipated the modern age. We have contemporary accounts to help us visualize his amazing vitality and activity–as architect, engineer, sculptor, anatomist, and painter.
But what have we today to establish his greatness as a painter? No more than a half-dozen pictures. The largest and most important is in ruins, so much so that nothing at all of the original is retained. Another, his most famous portrait, is an admittedly unfinished work. The remaining pictures are certainly questionable masterpieces. In short, we have no evidence. While it would be pleasant and warming to believe on faith that Leonardo must have been a great painter, it is nevertheless a betrayal of honest criticism to make that assumption and then to inflate it inordinately, using doubtful examples to support wishful theorizing.
Leonardo da Vinci’s contemporaries, who themselves had little time to study this picture before it began to disintegrate, were deeply impressed by its design and by the devices Leonardo employed to heighten the dramatic effect. Even today we can appreciate what great technical ingenuity went into the arrangement–the use of converging lines to focus attention on the head of Christ, and the unconventional disposition of his disciples around the table.
Time’s ravages and the use of poor materials have robbed us of much that was good in art. If we were to have the miraculous opportunity to recreate some lost works of the Renaissance, surely this “Last Supper” would be our choice. Seeing it in its pristine state would make meaningful, perhaps, what splendid things have been said about Leonardo the painter, things we have had to doubt for lack of proof.
Looking at this picture, we should all be harboring the same feeling–regret. This must have been an excellent painting. Now we can’t see a significant vestige of the original. So let’s not imagine that it was the greatest of all “Last Suppers.” Leonardo did this in oils on an enormous surface, a terrible technical mistake. It was falling to pieces in his own lifetime. A truly great painter of the Renaissance would probably have been a painstaking craftsman.
This Painting, perhaps the world’s most famous portrait, has generated more nonsense than any other art-work in history. Thousands upon thousands of lines have been written about it; ecstasies have reached heavenly levels; men have seen in the subject’s eyes all of the world that has been and all of the world that is to be. This may be delightful fantasy, enjoyable daydreaming, even good writing–but as criticism it is dense and a sickening pretense.
“Mona Lisa” is an unfinished portrait executed in a manner that was common to many painters of the Italian Renaissance. The picture, in terms of painting itself, is confused in its treatment; it gives the impression of a work whose elaboration was too far extended. The subject is not without psychological interest. The treatment of the mouth, upturned at the ends, makes the subject seem quizzical and curious. Legend has it that Leonardo had musicians present at all times to sustain the peculiar mood of his subject.